For over 13 hours in April 2020, one of the worst crimes in Canadian history horrifically played out across multiple locations in Nova Scotia.
On April 28, 2020, Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist, began an attack on his partner in the small beachside community of Portapique. His partner survived but within a day he killed 22 people using multiple rifles and handguns. After shooting and killing multiple people and lighting several homes on fire in his community, Wortman left the area dressed as an RCMP officer in a replica police vehicle. From there he systematically killed both people he had grudges with and complete strangers he came across. During his rampage, he killed one police officer and injured another.
Police initially thought the killer was either dead or hiding in around Portapique which allowed him to escape and hunker down for several hours at a nearby industrial zone. From there he drove hundreds of kilometres in an area about an hour outside of Halifax. He was only stopped when he came across police during a chance encounter as he filled up a car he had stolen, and was shot and killed. If it weren’t for this chance encounter, there is no telling how much worse one of the worst murder sprees in not just Canada, but North America, could have been.
In the days after the shooting one thing became abundantly clear–at nearly every step of the way police messed up and those mistakes cost people their lives.
From accidentally shooting up a firehall to using Twitter instead of the emergency alert system to tell the public there was a mass shooting taking place to communications staff not wanting to tell citizens the shooter was dressed as a police officer because they were worried citizens would hurt cops, the police response to the crime was roundly criticized. To get to the bottom of what exactly occurred, the provincial and federal government decided to hold an independent Mass Casualty Commission to investigate. (The commission has also been criticized for being too secretive and police friendly.)
To put it lightly, the inquiry has not been going well for the RCMP, Canada’s national police force.
“There is a recurring theme within the evidence of the RCMP as an institution failing to take meaningful accountability for their actions during the mass casualty,” Alix Digout, a lawyer representing a family member of murder victim Kristen Beaton, told the commissioners at the inquiry last week in Truro.“There appears to be a reluctance to acknowledge mistakes, to be retrospective, and to create change.”
Last week Truro Police Chief Dave MacNeil, said the RCMP were in limited contact with him and his team, who were the nearest local police force to the mass shooting and that none of their on-duty officers that night were asked to aid. When they were finally asked to help, they received limited details on what roads had to be contained in hopes of stopping the gunman.
“There had to be a lot of catastrophic failures for this guy to be on the loose for 13 hours, driving through Nova Scotia,” said MacNeil.
One of the primary criticisms that have been laid against authorities in regards to this crime was the question of why they used social media to warn the public of an active shooter rather than a province-wide alert that would be broadcast directly to citizens phones. Several of the people killed were strangers to the gunman who just came across them while they were out getting groceries or on a walk. So, why didn’t they issue the alert, which likely would have led to those very people staying home?
Well, in some sense, it was to protect police.
"You would have more dead police officers because this is rural policing," Lia Scanlan, the director of strategic communications for the Nova Scotia RCMP, told the inquiry. "People handle shit themselves. So, you know, I had a member call me and they were petrified to be on the road. They thought that they were going to get killed because of it being public that it was a police officer."
Scanlon was not able to provide any real evidence for the claims other than saying she thought her grandfather would have shot cops in that situation. In a previous interview, she spoke about how proud she was of the response and was upset that she wasn’t able to speak about it at conferences because of the public backlash. Police did ask for an emergency alert to be sent out but only five minutes before the gunman was killed at a gas station and after 22 people were dead
The information the RCMP did get out to the public on Facebook and Twitter was held up greatly by red tape. Another person who was involved in the communications effort said that she waited for nearly half an hour for a tweet with crucial information to be approved and sent to the public.
“There is a constant cycle of chasing, checking, and correcting, which leads to waste and error,” Digout said of the process.
It also learned that communication among the police officers was lacking as many did not know how to properly use their radio, or there was too much radio chatter for people to get through. This led to issues with the officer's ability to spread important information or directions of where the suspect was headed among each other. At one point this lack of information led to two officers opening fire on a fire hall they believed to contain the gunman but only held civilians and fellow police officers.
There was significant damage to the fire hall, $43,000 in total, and the volunteer firefighters inside said they were traumatized, but no one was physically injured. The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing partially because they were unable to reach their commanders on their radio despite trying eight times. So, other than the murderer, the only people to shoot at police officers during the entire crisis were other police.
On top of all that, some local police forces didn’t aid the RCMP in their effort but instead just decided to “carry on as normal.” Halifax Regional Police officer Charles Naugle said that despite requests for aid his police force, the largest in the region, “did not make any effort whatsoever to become involved.” While Naugle did not respect the efforts made by the RCMP he still thought that they should have gotten help, as the gunman could have made his way to the city of Halifax if it weren’t for the chance encounter at the gas station.
“Your neighbour's an idiot, you don’t get along with him, but either way, he’s your neighbour,” said Naugle. “His house is on fire and he’s out there with a garden hose and he’s trying to put out the fire. And you see that one, his place is burning down and, two, the flames are going to threaten you. Do you go over there with your garden hose and help him or do you just say never mind because you’re an idiot?”
The commission itself has not escaped scrutiny either. Several family members of the victims boycotted the proceedings in May because two RCMP officers important to the investigation were exempted by cross-examination by the victim’s lawyers.
“It's total bullshit. I'll call it what it is,” said Nick Beaton when he learned of the exemptions. Beaton’s pregnant wife was killed by the gunman during the massacre.
The commission has conducted hours of interviews and has released hundreds of pages of documents (you can read them here) since it began earlier in the year. It is expected to continue to carry out its investigation in the coming months and have its final report ready at the start of November.
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